Digital ‘dark arts’

The free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia was one of the early successes of the online space.   Up there with Google or Facebook as a major online destination site, it differs from the aforementioned by studiously avoiding commercialism.

The Wikipedia model relies on a communal approach to creating, editing and maintaining its entries.   There’s the rub for the mess the ‘dark arts’ of PR have got Bell Pottinger into. How and why did it happen, and how could it have been avoided?

Today’s revelations, known for some time, that Bell Pottinger was manipulating Wikipedia entries (and by no means the only PR company engaged in this) reveals the paucity of awareness of how this digital lanscape works and is symptomatic of the way silos still dominate organisational structures.

Each edit on Wikipedia leaves a digital footprint, exposing who has been where and done what.   These digital footprints are an inescapable, and necessary, part of the way social media works – and by social media I mean Wikipedia as much as Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn (and sundry others),  email, or edits to sites like this or major sites like or

An audit trail is a necessary part of any content management system, the means by which updates are made.   Social media sites are in essence, vast content management systems with millions of ‘editors’ in the form pf participants like you and me.   Yet what is so often so striking is that these fundamental aspects of what you can do and how seem unknown to so many mainstream practitioners.   The result?   The mess that Bell Pottinger finds itself in.   Why?

So many digital executions are dreamed up by creative thinkers.   This isn’t a criticism.   Fresh and creative thinking in any industry or society is a necessary pre-requisite to development and progress, witness human endeavour through millennia.   The flaw lies in the lack of involvement by the people who know how to achieve these creative aims.   Furthermore the knowledge of the business possessed by, say, the content creators, is vastly different to that possessed by those developing the way products are delivered and is not necessarily greater as is often assumed.

As a digital strategist and implementor with numerous companies over the years, I’ve seen first hand the way that technical, studio and development teams are locked out of creative processes.   I always fought for their inclusion because I have always known that by drawing teams together you achieve a more robust and sustainable approach to rendering digital strategy.

The failure to integrate teams in this way is the main cause of the problem that certain PR companies and Brands find themselves facing.

The seductive lure of the traffic, engagement and interaction that digital and social media brings too often clouds the judgements required to achieve those results in an optimal, ethical and sustainable way.

I was talking to a prominent publisher recently about how apps and eBooks might benefit his business.   The conundrum he faced – in common with all publishers of his type – was that the relationships with Apple and Amazon resulted in those parties controlling the relationship with the end user.   Gathering knowledge about the way the publisher’s product purchase funnels and conversion paths operated and the impulses that led to conversion were muddy at best, unknown at worst.

Yet to me the answer was obvious:

  • Embed post purchase surveys into apps and eBooks;
  • Include data capture opportunities;
  • Explore other ecommerce partnerships – contextual ecommerce partnerships with, say, travel companies for language learning books or financial news sites for business and management development books . . .

The knowledge gained from these amenable and flexible partnerships plus the impulses which lead to purchase and the resulting consumption habits can then be used to optimise targeted marketing campaigns channel by channel.

In looking at apps, the other obvious approach was to hold back content and build in upsells and cross-sells. . . because compartmentalising content in this way leads to a better user experience suited to the way people consume apps ‘on the go’.   Furthermore it delivers an opportunity to focus on the interactive aspects so vital to making an ‘app’ work.

Yet the creative thinking done in-house excluded the very people required to render it . . . and in consequence seemed to have led to numerous poorly achieved projects, none of which hung together.   A pity as this particular publisher possessed a great product set.   But the approach followed by the publisher I spoke to was not unique.   It seems many Brands, across B2B and B2C and FMCGs, still operate in silo environments which militate against achieving the commercial aim.

In summary a creative strategy can only work when it is stewarded by people who can straddle the creative and implementation phases of any project.   For a strategy to really deliver it requires the involvement of practitioners.   It has to be built upon a solid knowledge of the value to be gained from the promotion of a particular path and it is doomed to fail if there are no KPIs to measure success.   Silos have no place in an increasingly connected world.

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